, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp 27-35

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): A Pilot Study

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Abstract

Exposure to combat experiences is associated with increased risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy have garnered a significant amount of empirical support for PTSD treatment; however, they are not universally effective with some patients continuing to struggle with residual PTSD symptoms. Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of the autonomic nervous system functioning and reflects an individual’s ability to adaptively cope with stress. A pilot study was undertaken to determine if veterans with PTSD (as measured by the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale and the PTSD Checklist) would show significantly different HRV prior to an intervention at baseline compared to controls; specifically, to determine whether the HRV among veterans with PTSD is more depressed than that among veterans without PTSD. The study also aimed at assessing the feasibility, acceptability, and potential efficacy of providing HRV biofeedback as a treatment for PTSD. The findings suggest that implementing an HRV biofeedback as a treatment for PTSD is effective, feasible, and acceptable for veterans. Veterans with combat-related PTSD displayed significantly depressed HRV as compared to subjects without PTSD. When the veterans with PTSD were randomly assigned to receive either HRV biofeedback plus treatment as usual (TAU) or just TAU, the results indicated that HRV biofeedback significantly increased the HRV while reducing symptoms of PTSD. However, the TAU had no significant effect on either HRV or symptom reduction. A larger randomized control trial to validate these findings appears warranted.